Union Gospel Mission (Seattle)

  • By Mavis Amundson
  • Posted 12/27/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9248

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, founded in 1932 to feed and save the souls of homeless men during the Great Depression, grew over the years to become a diversified, faith-based nonprofit offering many social services in addition to its hot meals for needy men and women. Operating on a shoestring budget with donated food, the Union Gospel Mission started out as a church-backed soup kitchen, but within a few years the organization began branching out to also provide shelter, clothes and counseling -- along with generous doses of the gospel -- to women and children as well as men.  

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission thus became an established embodiment of the Christian movement, dating back to at least the mid-1800s, of ministering to the urban needy, many of them out-of-work men struggling with alcoholism.   

Roots of the Mission

The notion of Christian outreach programs dedicated to helping the urban homeless and saving their souls dates back to at least the middle of the nineteenth century. William Booth, a London clergyman, launched a ministry that later became known as the Salvation Army in 1865. One of the first such organizations in the United States was New York’s Bowery Mission, which started in 1879. Early advocates wanted to see similar rescue missions established in cities throughout the United States.

The idea took hold in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where organizers launched the St. Paul Mission in 1902. Its vision was ambitious: In addition to giving food and shelter to homeless men, the St. Paul Mission also operated a Sunday school and a boys’ and girls’ club.  

In April 1932, Peter MacFarlane (b. 1910) from the St. Paul Mission traveled to Seattle and met with a group of clergymen who were concerned about the city’s destitute during the Great Depression. Following that meeting, several Seattle-area churches banded together in a “union” to launch Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission on August 21, 1932. The churches were located in various neighborhoods, and included the Apostolic Faith Mission in Pioneer Square, the Elim Swedish Baptist in Wallingford, the Gatewood Baptist in the South End, the Tabernacle Baptist on Capitol Hill, and the First Presbyterian Church located downtown at 7th Avenue and Spring Street.

Feeding the Hungry

The Seattle mission’s connection to Minnesota proved to be a lasting one. The first director of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission was the Reverend Francis O. Peterson (1890-1986), who left his Minnesota ministry with his family in 1932 to launch the fledgling mission in Pioneer Square. Peterson had rescue-mission experience from working three years for a mission in Michigan.

Peterson arrived in a Seattle gripped by the Great Depression. Pioneer Square, the city’s original business district, was bordered on the north by Yesler Way. The street was also known as Skid Road, a name that earned many of its connotations from that part of town.  

Seattle’s railyards were nearby -- a source of free transportation for homeless men willing to risk riding in unsecured freight cars. Pioneer Square was also not far from several homeless encampments, dubbed “Hoovervilles,” that were south and east of the business district and housed many people who were without money, jobs and shelter.

Peterson’s first task was to mobilize the Union Gospel Mission to feed the hungry. The mission’s member churches spearheaded food drives that brought in baskets of onions, carrots, potatoes, and sometimes meat. All of it became ingredients for soup.  

Soup, Soap, and Salvation

Luckily, the original mission was located at 716-1/2 1st Avenue near Cherry Street, not far from the Society Candy Co., at 800 Western Avenue, which used a large copper kettle to make confections. Mission cooks would borrow the kettle to make soup. Then they would clean the pot and return it to the company for the next batch of candy.

Mission workers saw this as providential, with God’s hand at work helping the poor.

The soup menu depended on whatever food was donated. If the mission got a donation of vegetables, the cooks made vegetable soup. If someone donated a bag of beans, the homeless were nourished with bean soup. This became the pattern for the mission’s early years. The hungry and the homeless, mostly men, would come to the mission for hot food and a Christian message.

The mission’s rallying cry became a simple alliteration: “soup, soap, salvation.”

Money was tight. The mission’s first-year budget was less than $1,500, which included rent, supplies, utilities, and Peterson’s salary. Nonetheless, the mission fed 18,000 men that year.   

The need was plainly visible. Peterson once recalled 500 men lined up outside the mission, waiting for food. The homeless sometimes had nothing but sheets of cardboard to sleep on. Mission workers found themselves addressing other immediate needs of the homeless besides hunger, such as helping street people get rid of their lice.

Sheltering Men, Women, and Soldiers

As the 1930s waned, along with the Great Depression, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission started diversifying. By 1940, the mission had branched out to include a women and children’s facility, an employment bureau, and a clothing outlet. It opened a servicemen’s center during World War II. 

The mission continued expanding in the 1950s.  In 1951, the nonprofit paid $50,000 for the old Ace Hotel on Seattle’s 2nd Avenue and converted it to a men’s shelter. Three years later, the mission moved out of its 1st Avenue facility and into its current building at 318 2nd Avenue S. It opened a women’s shelter in 1958.

The mission expanded again in 1968 by adding a medical-services center. 

Changing Times

Churches were instrumental in the mission during its early years, but the nonprofit’s ties with local congregations began weakening in the 1960s and 1970s. About the same time, the mission started seeing changes in the demographic mix of Seattle’s homeless.

Homeless men with drug and alcohol addictions continued to seek help from the mission. But mission workers also started seeing more women, children and young adults wrestling with various kinds of substance abuse.

These were the challenges facing the Reverend Stephen E. Burger (b. 1940) in 1974, when he became the mission’s executive director after Peterson retired. Like Peterson, Burger also had worked with the St. Paul Mission, although his most recent mission post was in York, Pennsylvania.

Burger brought to Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission his experience from working in rehabilitation and with children, young adults, women and families. During his 15-year tenure, the mission expanded its services to include a prison-recovery program, a youth outreach center, a street-kids ministry, and a Bible-study program for inmates in local jails. The mission also expanded its drug- and alcohol-recovery programs.

Burger stepped down in 1989 to become executive director of the International Union of Gospel Missions in Kansas City, Missouri. He was succeeded in Seattle by yet another Minnesota transplant, Herbert A. Pfiffner (b. 1942), who came from Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Herbert Pfiffner's Arrival  

Pfiffner, an ordained minister, had a first-hand knowledge of youth gangs. He grew up on St. Paul’s East Side, and as a teenager Pfiffner had led a street gang. A religious experience changed his life.

He was about 15 and on the street one day when someone handed him a Christian tract. Pfiffner at first thought little of it, but a few days later he found the article in his pocket. He read it. Then, he prayed. “I think God was trying to get my attention,” Pfiffner later recalled.   

He started attending a boys’ club run by the St. Paul Mission and eventually became a volunteer there. His street smarts helped Pfiffner relate to young people who needed a sense of direction.

He continued to work for the boys’ club as a college student, and then became executive director of Hospitality House, a Minneapolis youth-services agency. While there, Pfiffner launched a program to help young people stay in school and away from predators and drug pushers. All told, Pfiffner spent 25 years -- from 1964 to 1988 -- at Hospitality House, leaving to become in 1989 the third director of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.   

In Seattle, Pfiffner used his Minneapolis experience to start youth programs aimed at heading off drug and alcohol abuse before it took hold. Services also included help for runaways and for youngsters who were victims of physical and sexual abuse.   

Pfiffner helped the mission offer a growing menu of social services, such as counseling, dental assistance, legal aid, computer classes, work-training programs, and chapel services and English classes for Hispanics. A rescue service delivered food to homeless people on the street.

Union Gospel Mission Today

By 2008, the mission that had started out in 1932 with a borrowed soup pot was serving about 422,000 meals a year and providing nearly 128,000 overnight stays to the homeless. Its 2009 budget was $16 million, a far cry from its first budget of $1,500.   

By 2009, 77 years after its founding, the mission operated a men’s shelter in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, and a shelter for women and families in South Seattle’s NewHolly (formerly Holly Park) neighborhood. It also ran drug-and-alcohol recovery programs, a youth center, a legal-aid program, and a dental clinic.

In the fall of 2009, the mission announced that Pfiffner, who had earlier announced plans to retire at the end of the year, would be succeeded by Jeff Lilley (b. 1960), executive director of Hume Lake Christian Camps in California. For the first time in 77 years, the mission selected a leader who did not come from the upper Midwest.

The mission continues to serve hot meals to homeless men, women, and children, but the modest bowl of soup of the 1930s has evolved into a full meal prepared by professional cooks and, on occasion, restaurant chefs who donate their time.   

And on late afternoons in downtown Seattle, homeless men still line up outside of the mission, just as they did in the dark days of the 1930s. 


Sources: Herbert A. Pfiffner, “A New Day,” “More than a Thousand Points of Light,” “Mission of Hope” (Union Gospel Mission, P.O. Box 202, Seattle, Washington 98111); untitled History page of Salvation Army website (http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/www_usn_2.nsf); Mavis Amundson interviews with Herbert A. Pfiffner, July 6, 2009, and July 16, 2009, Seattle; Mavis Amundson interview with Sharon Thomas-Hearns, Union Gospel Mission, May 13, 2009, Seattle; Mavis Amundson visit Union Gospel Mission, Seattle, June 2009.

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